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‘Childhood’ and ‘youth’ are socially constructed conceptions of age and not biological givens (Arius 1962). The idea that a transitional period of youth occurs between childhood and adulthood is a relatively recent invention, beginning with Rousseau’s novel Umile in mid-eighteenth-century Europe, which celebrated childhood and delineated stages of youth. Generational terms referring to the ‘lost generation’ of the 1920s, or the ‘silent generation’ post-World War II (1950s), began emerging in the twentieth century. During the post-World War II period, ‘youth culture’ was widely used to describe the growing music and rock culture and consumer and fashion styles of the era that quickly mutated into the counterculture of the 1960s.
Since then there has been a flourishing industry in sociology, cultural studies, and popular media designing terms like ‘baby-boomers’ – those who were born in the mid-1940s and the postwar period and came of age during the affluence of the 1950s and 1960s (Gillon 2004).This generation were the beneficiaries of an unprecedented economic expansion and a highly self-conscious sense of generation, having gone through the turbulent 1960s together and emerged in many cases to prosperity and success in corporate, academic, and political life in the 1970s and beyond.
Theorists in the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Britain emphasized youth culture’s counter-hegemonic and ‘generational’ qualities and examined the ways in which working- class youth sub-cultures resisted subordination through the production of their own culturally subversive styles (Hall & Jefferson 1976). From this perspective, youth of the 1950s celebrated beatniks, teddy boys, and the styles associated with American rhythm and blues music. A decade later, when these became appropriated by the mainstream, 1960s youth turned to the mods on the one hand, and hippy and countercultural styles of sex, drugs, and rock and roll on the other. After the commercialization and appropriation of the counterculture in the 1970s, youth turned to new movements like punk and, with the rise in global popularity of hip-hop culture from the 1980s onward, youth have turned increasingly to more urban and underprivileged “gangsta” styles of violent rap sub-culture (Kellner 1995).
While there have been attempts to present baby-boomers and ‘post-boomers’ as coherent generations (Howe & Strauss 1993; 2000), in fact contemporary youth embrace a wide array of young people and its youth culture is equally heterogeneous. Post-boomers include those who helped create the Internet and the culture of video-gaming; the latchkey kids who are home alone and the mallrats quaffing fast food in the palaces of consumption; the young activists who helped generate the anti-globalization and emerging peace and antiwar movements; the café slackers, klub kidz, computer nerds, and sales clerks; a generation committed to health, exercise, sustainability, ethical dietary practices, and animal rights, as well as anorexics and bulimics in thrall to the ideals of the beauty and fashion industries. Today’s youth also include creators of exciting zines and diverse multimedia such as can be found on sites like MySpace, Facebook, and YouTube; the bike ponies, valley girls, and skinheads; skaters, gangstas, low-riders, riot grrrls, and hip-hoppers; all accompanied by a diverse and heterogeneous grouping of multicultural, racial, and hybridized individuals seeking a viable identity. Youth sub-cultures can comprise an entire way of life, involving clothes, styles, attitudes, and practices.
Youth sub-cultures contain potential spaces of resistance, though these can take various forms ranging from narcissistic and apolitical to anarchist and punk cultures, from environmental and social justice activist cultures promoting progressive vegan lifestyles to right-wing skinheads and Islamic jihadists promoting startlingly reactionary ideas and values.
Today, youth culture is increasingly global with the Internet, new media, and social networking transmitting global forms of culture through proliferating channels and media of communication. Yet one should distinguish between a youth culture produced by youth themselves that articulates their own visions, passions, and anxieties, and media culture produced by adults to be consumed by youth. One also needs to distinguish between youth cultures that are lived and involve immediate, participatory experience as opposed to mediated cultural experience and consumption, and to be aware that youth cultures involve both poles. Moreover, one should resist both reducing youth culture merely to a culture of consumption, or glorifying it as a force of resistance.
- Arius, P. (1962). Centuries of childhood: A social history of family life. New York: Alfred Knopf.
- Gillon, S. (2004). Boomer nation: The largest and richest generation ever, and how it changed America. New York: Free Press.
- Hall, S. & Jefferson, T. (eds.) (1976). Resistance through rituals: Youth subcultures in post-war Britain. London: Hutchinson.
- Howe, N. & Strauss, W. (1993). Thirteenth generation: America’s thirteenth generation, born 1961–1981. New York: Vintage.
- Howe, N. & Strauss, W. (2000). Millennials rising: America’s next great generation. New York: Vintage.
- Kellner, D. (1995). Media culture: Cultural studies, identity and politics between the modern and the postmodern. London: Routledge.